In summer 2020, protests erupted across the U.S., sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans. Within the tech industry, many leaders made public statements, financial commitments, and policy changes meant to improve equity and inclusion within their walls—and in the products they peddle.
To commemorate the first anniversary of these protests, Fast Company partnered with The Plug, a publication that covers the Black innovation economy, to examine what those commitments are, what they have achieved—and how much work still remains. (You can see the resulting data visualizations and first-person testimonials from Black employees, entrepreneurs, and customers here.)
For Charlton McIlwain, a vice provost and professor at NYU and author of the book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, the structural problems inherent to the tech industry’s mode of operation will take much more than lip service to address.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The George Floyd protests prompted companies in the tech industry to acknowledge their failure to be inclusive places for people of color and to promise to do better in the future. Particularly from your historical perspective, do you have any thoughts on the promises they made and whether there has been any progress since then?
Charlton McIlwain: I do think there’s some optimism in the pledges that were made after George Floyd and related incidents. Across the board with tech companies, you started to see familiar lines, familiar pledges, which had to do with everything from diversifying the tech workforce, to pledging money and financial resources to civil rights organizations, to boning up on the work that companies do amongst their own organizations to fight for racial justice.
I’m optimistic in the sense that the times and circumstance generated this volume of attention and response from the tech community and from the highest leadership in many of these organizations. That said, I remain relatively pessimistic. That’s because in some way, shape, or form, we’ve seen many of these pledges before. And essentially the impact has been stagnant. If you really want the barometer, it’s been across the last 50 years. The same kinds of efforts that we’ve seen mentioned over the past year have really yielded not much impact at all.
I was struck by the story in your book about Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM feeling guilty after the Watts riots in 1965 and being involved in a training program for people of color and it not going very well. Are any parallels there to the current situation?
In many respects, the strategies used by IBM early on and over their historical arc have been basically the playbook for all other tech companies. The Fort Rodman experiment that I talk about in the book tried to educate a technical workforce, to train them directly for recruiting into jobs in various companies. Things like that remain to this day. Other kinds of recruitment tactics or investments, and supplier diversity, which have been part of the IBM playbook, [remain] part of the tech company playbook across the board. And there’s some progress there, simply in the type of resources that they target to vendors and others that are doing contracted work for for them.
Another strategy that’s typical has to do with targeting and partnering with folks like Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help recruit more diverse workforces. The playbook has remained fairly the same since IBM engineered this, so to speak, back in the the early-to-mid sixties. And again, most of them end up in the same way that Tom Watson remarked about Fort Rodman. Which is, there’s good motivations, sometimes they’re good ideas and ideals that go into the projects. But the follow through is not there. The sustained commitment is not there.
The work to be done in this area is hard. And it requires much more than tacit financial investment. And more than that, it requires various kinds of structural changes to really sustain what it is folks are trying to do. We see that in a lot of cases today, looking at Google especially and Facebook as well. It’s one thing to say, “We’re going to recruit a lot more diverse folks on technical teams or even elevate underrepresented folks across the organization to higher levels.” But if you have a toxic work environment that is hostile to the people and the cultures that the diverse workforce represents, then you make no real progress.
And I think that’s one of those challenges that we see again and again and again. It’s easy to say, “We’re going to bring folks in.” It’s much harder—because it requires hard culture change in organizations—to say, “We’re actually going to not only bring in a representative workforce, but do everything to make sure that those people can thrive, excel, and advance within the organization.”
Do you have any sense as to whether the large tech companies buy the idea that this toxicity is happening in some cases in their workplaces and will make a good faith effort to deal with it?
The evidence I’ve seen has not given me much confidence. On the one hand, I see a lot of resistance and the knee- jerk [impulse] to fight back when allegations are made, when information has been brought to light about what’s going on in these organizations. It’s the knee jerk to say, “No, these folks are not representing the situation accurately.” And so you knee jerk and default back to protecting the organization itself rather than taking stock and really dealing with it.
And I frankly don’t really see that strongly taking place. I see the familiar responses of lip service. You go to these companies’ websites, and all of them have groups and projects aimed at these kinds of retention-type issues and areas where they might help to engineer various kinds of change in culture. But I think it’s very clear that they are too little, often too late, and that it’s not a serious part of the company’s way of thinking structurally about how to move things forward.
Historically, Black entrepreneurs have had challenges getting access to capital. The venture capital industry is also acknowledging problems and saying it’ll do better. If progress is made, how much of it might come from Black entrepreneurs starting successful companies vs. the existing large tech companies doing better by people of color?
It’s absolutely right to be focused on this question. I think the data about this is very clear in terms of the very stark lack of investment in BIPOC entrepreneurs and founders. I do think that along with the circumstances over the last year, there has been also renewed attention and pledges to do better on this front from the venture capital community and other service sectors—the legal sector and other—that have a role of helping in some way to assist entrepreneurs and new and small businesses.
Again, there’s some reason for optimism in as much as people identify and recognize this as a significant problem and as a barrier across a number of years across most of our history of tech innovation. But the pessimism comes from a long standing structural issue. It is not as if the venture capital community has been unaware of Black and Brown and underrepresented folks who are in the entrepreneurship community. It’s not as there haven’t been deliberate decisions and deliberate structures erected to exclude those folks from that community in order to protect the amount of investment that goes into very small sectors of people who profit that tend to be white and male.
I think there are a lot of things out there that are worth tracking. I recently joined the advisory board of Accenture’s Black founders development program, largely because I could see their seriousness in really doing more than investing more in this area, both in terms of financial support and providing capital for this community, but also other forms of supporting Black and brown founders. And I know that there are some others of those [programs] across the community. So it’s there. The question will be, will it still there next year? Will we still be talking about this two or three years from now and into the future?
Your book goes all the way up to Black Lives Matter and the modern social networking world. Will the fact that these conversations are happening in public in a way they didn’t always in the past be a contributor to any progress that’s made in the future?
It helps. Black Lives Matter was very much served by our new media environment that includes digital media and social media platforms. When we look at the process of social change and where that begins, it begins with public attention to an issue that has to be changed. That is where social media has had very significant impacts.
Unfortunately, I think that may be the limit of its impact. I’m much more pessimistic about [social media’s] ability to engender everything else that must necessarily happen in the process of a significant social change after that, in terms of galvanizing communities and connecting with structures of power, to change policy, to change practices, to change the laws that govern all of those things that are working against communities of color.
In order for these kinds of social platforms and other digital tools to make even greater forms of impact requires us to revisit the earlier part of our conversation, which is about ownership. And the fact is that those gains from Black Lives Matter had to do with folks who use utilize existing platforms that they did not own, and that they did not have influence on, largely.
And while that has some affordances it also has a lot of limitations. It was also those platforms that were the source of police surveillance that ultimately helped to curtail the types of quote-unquote “offline actions” that were able to take place. If there’s any further promise of impact in the social media arena, it’s going to have to be around platforms that are very focused on these kinds of issues and that are owned and controlled by those who have the best interest of racial justice and Black and Brown communities at the heart of what they do.